Halik Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World Way. Allen Lane; London, 2012, xxxi + 734. ISBN 978-1846-14354-0


In the introduction to her major study, Dr Kochanski sets out her goal as follows:

This book is not a nationalistic study. It will not seek to defend either Polish government policy or the actions of individuals unquestioningly. The aim is to present the most complete picture of the Poles and Poland in the Second World War to date.

This is an important objective. We desperately need such a comprehensive account of the role of Poland and its citizens between 1939 and 1945. Polish forces fought from the first to the last day of the war and suffered appallingly under both Nazi and Soviet occupations. Yet in spite of all the sufferings its people endured, the country was subjected after the war to an unrepresentative and undemocratic regime ultimately dependent on Soviet power. It had to wait until 1989 before it was again fully independent in what  was perhaps the real end of the Second World War. To what extent does Dr. Kochanski succeed in her goal?

The book has many virtues. It gives a fair and balanced account of the strengths and weaknesses of the Second Polish Republic and of its foreign policy. It is particularly strong on military history, describing well the September campaign and giving detailed accounts of the various Polish military forces during the Second World War—the army established in the United Kingdom, that organized in Iran from those allowed to leave the Soviet Union, the communist-dominated army set up in the Soviet Union which participated in the liberation of Berlin, and the large underground formation, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) in Poland. Dr. Kochanski describes movingly the travails of the Poles under Nazi occupation and the sufferings of those deported to the Soviet Union from former eastern Poland after 1939, among whom were her parents, and follows modern scholarship in assessing the number of deportees as perhaps 500,000. She describes accurately the controversies within the Government-in-Exile, first in Angers and then in London, and its conflicts with the underground in Poland. She also takes a balanced position on the decision to launch the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, although the fact that the strategy of the underground and the relations of the Government-in-London with the Allied powers are treated in successive chapters creates unnecessary confusion as the same issues are dealt with in both. 

It is therefore all the more regrettable that the book contains a large number of errors. Some of these are simple mistakes of fact that betray insufficient familiarity with some aspects of the subject. Thus Dr Kochanski claims that the reason Piłsudski staged an armed demonstration in May 1926 which led to the May coup was because ‘the Polish National Bank refused to grant the government a further loan’(p. 25), whereas what provoked the Marshal to act was the formation of a new coalition between Witos, the Peasant Party leader and the National Democrats. Generalplan Ost was not ‘first discussed’ at the Wannsee conference in January 1942 but was part of the planning for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (p. 268). The two Hungarian prime ministers in the early 1940s were Pál Teleki (not Telecki) and Miklós Kállay (not Kally) (pp 241-2). The communist politician Edward Ochab is described as ‘Orchab’ (pp. 26, 368, 396). The publication date of Jan Błoński's path-breaking article, ‘The poor Poles look at the ghetto’ is given as 1978 rather than January 1987 and the subsequent Jerusalem conference on Polish-Jewish relations as February 1979 rather than February 1988, predating by a decade this first major debate on the Holocaust in Poland since the establishment of the Stalinist regime.

Then there are places where she misrepresents her sources. She cites (p. 26) my Politics in Independent Poland (Oxford 1972) as authority for the assertion that the Stronnictwo Narodowe (National Party) of Roman Dmowski won ‘the majority of votes in the 1930 elections’. These elections were subject to government pressure and, according to Statystyka Polska series C, number 4, reproduced on page 324 of Politics in Independent Poland, the pro-government Non-party Bloc for the Support of the Government and its allies won 47.4 per cent of the vote  against 12.7 per cent for the National List, Dmowski’s party. She quotes me as stating that ‘If the Second Republic had not been foully murdered in 1939 by external agents, there is little doubt that it would soon have sickened from internal causes’. This is attributed in a note to pp. 506-8 of Politics in Independent Poland. It is not to be found there and in no way reflects my views. Is this the only such misattribution in the book?

She further claims that ‘the British and Polish Governments suspected’ that the Jewish desertions from the Polish army in the United Kingdom in early 1944 were ‘a put-up job by the Soviet embassy, aiming to discredit the Polish Governnment and the Polish Army’ (p. 462). While this may have been true of the Polish Government, the official in the Foreign Office responsible for this matter, George Allen, in a minute of 28 April 1944 wrote ‘I know of no evidence that Soviet influence is behind the desertions and I think they can be explained without assuming it’. Reacting to the testimonies of Jewish soldiers which provided a detailed account of antisemitic harassment including physical abuse and discrimination in duty assignmemts, he minuted ‘These statements…seem to me to read convincingly, and they leave a nasty impression’. These quotations can be found in David Engel’s, Facing a Holocaust: The Polish Government-in-Exile and the Jews 1943-45 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993), one of two books cited by Dr. Kochanski on this matter.

There are also areas where she seems unfamiliar with current research. Describing the post-war Polish government, she writes ‘a number of political leaders…such as Minc, Berman, Olszewski, Radkiewicz and Spychalski were Jews’…(p. 549).  Minc, Berman and Olszewski were clearly communists of Jewish origin, but Marian Spychalski who was imprisoned in 1950 as a national communist after the fall of Gomułka and whose brother was a colonel in the AK  was not. Neither was Stanislaw Radkiewicz, the brutal Minister of the Interior, something which did not stop the American Ambassador in Poland, Arthur Bliss Lane from describing him, as ‘a good-looking man, apparently of Russian Semitic origin, with carefully combed oily black hair, a keen mobile aesthetic face’.It should be noted that both are described as Jews in current antisemitic postings on the web in Poland. In this context żydokomuna should be translated as ‘Judeo-communism’ not ‘communist Jew’ as appears throughout the book.

Referring to the distortion of Polish-Jewish issues in Communist Poland, Dr. Kochanski writes

The publication of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1958 was heavily edited to omit many favourable references to the Christian Poles who tried to help the Jews and this distorted version was sold and translated abroad.

It is correct that the publication of all Oyneg Shabes materials in Poland in the 1950's, including Ringelblum’s Notes from the Ghetto, which was published in Yiddish in 1951 and in Polish in 1951 and 1952 in Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego (and not in 1958) were subjected to considerable editing and bowdlerization. But what was edited out—mainly by Ber Mark, the communist head of the Jewish Historical Institute—was for the most part criticism of Poles, although anything that cast blame on the AK and the London government was allowed to stand. When the Polish edition appeared it was immediately condemned by scholars, such as Yosef Kermish (YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, 1953)who compared it to the original manuscript, a copy of which was in Yad Vashem. A complete unexpurgated version was published in Yiddish in Tel Aviv in 1985. In his introduction, Kermish wrote ‘the editors systematically excised all negative aspects, so that one is given a totally one-sided picture of this delicate issue [Polish Jewish relations]. As for the reader of the Polish translation he sees only good decent Poles, while there is almost no trace of the evil ones’ (p. 55). We need a new English translation of the unexpurgated text.

Dr. Kochanski also fails to take into account the important recent work of the historians at the Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów (Centre for Studies of the Jewish Holocaust) in Warsaw such as Barbara Engelking, Andrzej Żbikowski and Jan Grabowski, none of whose books or articles appear in the bibliography and whose work was described in the TLS by Zofia Stemplowska on 15 June 2012.  They have concentrated on the final stage of the Holocaust in Poland which took place after the liquidation of the ghettos in the large towns. In the smaller towns of Poland, the ghettos were more porous and many Jews were able to escape them—Żbikowski estimates over 300,000. However, Polish-Jewish relations in these towns had been more distant before the war. The Jews who sought shelter among the local population often did not find it and less than 50,000, according to his estimate, survived to the end of the war, hunted down by the German occupying authorities and often betrayed by the local population and, in some well-documented cases, murdered by Home Army units (Andrzej Żbikowski, ‘“Night Guard”: Holocaust Mechanisms in the Polish Rural Areas, 1942–1945’East European Politics andSocieties Volume 25 Number 3). Such was the fate of the Trinczer family in Gniewczyna in South-eastern Poland, described in the Catholic monthly Znak in 2008 in articles by Dariusz Libionka and Tadeusz Markiel, an eye-witness. It has now been the subject of a book-length study by Alina Skibińska and Tadeusz Markiel, Jakie to ma znaczenie, czy zrobili to z chciwości? Zagłada domu Trynczerów (What does it matter if they did it out of greed? The destruction of the Trynczer family, Warsaw, 2011). Dr. Kochanski also fails entirely to make use of the very rich German secondary literature on the Holocaust in the Polish lands.

Dr. Kochanski does attempt to be fair when dealing with the difficult and controversial issue of Polish-Jewish relations. Thus attempting to summarize the difference between the fate of Polish Jews and their non-Jewish fellow citizens during the Second World War, she writes:

However, all this is overshadowed by the fact that the Polish Jews were the ‘unequal victims’ in the Second World War. Six million Poles died during the conflict. Although half were Christian Poles and half were Jewish Poles, these Jews represented 90 per cent of the pre-war Jewish population of Poland.

However, she fails to take into account the implications of this ‘unequal victimhood’. Her work sometimes ignores recent scholarship on this topic and also slides, perhaps unwittingly, into apologetics and consistently adopts figures aimed at placing Poles in the most favourable light. When discussing the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne, incited by the Germans but carried out by Poles, she gives the very low figure of 300 dead (the product of the unfortunately interrupted exhumation as a result of Jewish religious objectionsof bodies in the barn in which most of the victims were burned alive—a detail omitted by Dr. Kochanski), although she does concede that ‘some say 1000 were killed there’(p.292). Marcin Urynowicz’s investigation of demographic movements in Jedwabne which is part of the study Wokoł Jedwabnego published by the Institute for National Memory (IPN) in 2002 showed that the Jewish population of Jedwabne had risen to somewhat more than 1,000 following the Soviet occupation because many refugees had flowed into the town. He concluded that some of these people left before the massacre and that although it is impossible to establish the exact number of victims burned in Bolesław Śleszyński’s barn, it was probably considerably less than 1,000 but with several scores more killed in other ways.  A number of Jews escaped the massacre, some of whom (around 50) were confined in a ghetto, later liquidated. Szmul Wasersztejn, a survivor, in his testimony given on 5 April 1945, which is reprinted in volume 2 of the IPN study, claimed that only seven Jedwabne Jews survived the massacre. Some of those who participated in the murders in Jedwabne did come from outside, as Kochanski points out, but many of the most brutal murderers were local, like the Laudański brothers, whose behaviour is graphically described in Anna Bikont’s book My z Jedwabnego (We from Jedwabne, Warsaw, 2004). In U genezy Jedwabnego: Żydzi na Kresach Północno-Wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej wrzesień 1939-lipiec 1941 (The origins of Jedwabne: Jews in the North-Eastern Borderlands of the II Republic, September 1939-July 1941, Warsaw 2006) Andrzej Żbikowski refers to 67 town and villages in the area of Łomża and Białystok where anti-Jewish violence took place at this time (p. 213). In his article in Wokól Jedwabnego, he gives more detail on 22 of these.  In several, such as Radziłów and Wąsosz the number of deaths was in the hundreds.  None of these incidents is mentioned by Dr. Kochanski nor are any of these books cited in her bibliography. Hers is an inadequate description of the violence in the region and its scope.

In discussing the number of Poles who died trying to save Jews and who are, in Ringelblum’s words, ‘the just lights’ of this dark period, she cites the Maximilian Kolbe Foundation in the United States as identifying ‘by name’ 2,300 and continues without critical comment ‘some have even claimed that as many as 50,000 were killed’ (p. 318). Wacław Bielawski in his book Zbrodnie na Polakach dokonane przez hitlerowców za pomoc udzielaną Żydom (Crimes against Poles carried out by Hitlerites for helping Jews, Warsaw, 1987) listed 872 people who had died saving Jews. When he republished his research in English in 1997 as ‘Those Who Helped: Polish Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust’which was published by IPN, he reduced this figure to 704. These figures are however too low, because they do not include unnamed persons murdered in villages destroyed by the Germans, in some cases for sheltering Jews.The IPN has established a research project ‘Życie za życie’ (A life for a life)  to list all cases of Poles who lost their lives assisting Jews, but has not yet published any findings. For this project see http://www.ipn.gov.pl/portal/pl/245/3971/Index_Polakow_zamordowanych_i_represjonowanych_przez_hitlerowcow_za_pomoc_Zydom_.html

Arguments about numbers are distressing and should only be advanced in good faith by those attempting to establish the truth.

It is obviously difficult to generalize about Polish attitudes to Jews during the Holocaust. But Jan Karski, to whom Dr. Kochanski refers with approval, in his report to the Polish Government in Exile of February 1940 wrote:

‘The solution of the Jewish Question’by the Germans--I must state this with a full sense of responsibility for what I am saying--is a serious and quite dangerous tool in the hands of the Germans, which is facilitating the ‘moral pacification’ of broad sections of Polish society…Although the nation loathes them [the Germans] mortally, this question is creating something of a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large portion of Polish society are finding agreement.

It is significant that when Karski reached the seat of the Government-in-Exile in Angers with his report he was ordered to amend it so that the first sentence would read ‘The solution of the Jewish Question by the Germans…is supposed to be a serious and quite dangerous tool….’ [italics in original as amended].

In late 1942 Stanisław Żeminski, a schoolteacher in Łuków, wrote in his diary:

There are many Poles and each reacts in his own way. I have written at length about swinish behaviour (draństwo). There are many people who condemn German crimes and are disgusted by them. There are people who at the sight of German deeds are simply driven to despair. The most widespread view is  that ‘while this is unpleasant and cruel, yet in this matter the Germans are doing us a big service by solving the Jewish problem.’

Our National Democratic party and all its offshoots can be proud of what it has sown. The Roman Catholic Church too can finally celebrate its triumph…

When extracts from this diary were published in Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego in 1958 (no. 27), it was bowdlerized.  Instead of  ‘The most widespread view is…’ the edited version read ‘However some people believe….’  The sentence on the Roman Catholic Church was entirely omitted.

This is clearly a well-meaning and important work about a major and neglected subject, and in parts is excellent.  It is therefore to be regretted that its treatment of the vexed question of Polish-Jewish relations, hardly a peripheral issue in a study of the Second World War, does not take into account the great advances that have been made in this area in Polish historiography in recent years. This research, which has made Poland a model for the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, is, for the most part, not reflected in the book.

Antony Polonsky


This is an expanded version of a review first published in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 February 2013. Reproduced by permission.